Is There a Distrust of Larger Churches?

Three things have happened in the PCUSA which have caused me some discomfort, as people have thought about the future of our denomination.

1) In 2008, Beau Weston wrote a paper on “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.” The “Establishment” was to be made up of all kinds of people, but mostly tall-steeple pastors.

2) More recently, a group of male pastors of mostly large, conservative churches wrote a letter stating that the denomination is “deathly ill” and outlining their hopes for the future.

3) Then there was a NEXT Church gathering, which was a conference that resulted from a conversation that was largely initiated by progressive big-steeple pastors.

I have many friends in the NEXT Church group and I was invited to the initial conversation and the gathering. Scheduling conflicts kept me from participating, but I would have loved to be a part of the discussion and the resulting conference. I was out of the country.

As soon as I returned from international roaming rates, I excitedly checked the #NEXTChurch Twitter hashtag to find out what happened at the event. I have to admit, my heart sank when I read the timeline. Many of the tweets explained that it was an event where four people preached, and three of them were men from tall-steeple churches. Testimonies were given, by mostly men. After some initial questions, I heard the gender equity was pretty good, especially during worship. In the breakout groups, mostly men moderated the conversation, but men and women reported that the gender balance was okay and that the racial ethnic representation was good in the worship leadership.

As I waded into the conversation with my tactless sass and a bit of misinformation, friends pushed back. Some pushback was good. I retweeted something on gender representation that was false, and I apologize for that. A seminary student said that I needed to make more friends among the organizers.

White guys commented on blogs how annoying it was that people (um, I would be one of those annoying people) are always bringing up how many women and people of color were involved. I know, I write about this a lot.

One friend pointed out that there seemed to be a distrust of big-steeple churches. He rightly explained that the big-steeple pastors had the resources and the power to pull the gathering off, and we should be thankful that they did.

I felt my own distrust rising up when he mentioned it, and I’m not sure why. I am the Associate Pastor of a 350-member church. It’s not a powerful church position. But, let me be clear. When my congregation called me, they asked me what my long-term career goals were. I answered, “I want to be the Head of Staff of a large, progressive congregation.”

I am very content where I am. I love my congregation. But, I don’t expect that I’ll be at this position for the next 30 years. I don’t think that God is calling me to big-steeple church any longer, but that has certainly been my hope up until recently. I guess I just want to put those cards on the table as I wade into this topic, because I have not had animosity against large congregations. I have felt called to serve in one.

So where is the frustration coming from?

It is a pattern in the Presbyterian Church (and probably in most organizations), that when a group wants to advocate for something in particular, then they will craft a letter ask the most powerful person that they know to sign on to it. We are denomination with a democratic structure, but we also know that some votes can count more than others. More than once I’ve felt frustrated by watching my influential colleagues throw their weight around.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the stats are pretty interesting. About 65% of our congregations are made up of churches that are under 150 members. When we imagine the future of the church, we know that the big-steeples are pretty safe. Even the conservative ones, who can’t abide by a democratic change in our polity, have enough power that they will probably end up with their property and be largely unscathed when they sever themselves.

The 65% often cannot afford a pastor. Many have a membership of people who are over the age of 65. Most will be coming to the end of their life cycle in a decade or so. Are we willing to be a church of the 35%? Or will we start looking toward the edges for innovative ministry?

The big steeples have ministry models that many smaller congregations cannot replicate. The vast programs, staffing structures, beautiful buildings, and musical excellence are out of reach for most churches. The congregations that are growing the fastest are immigrant congregations. Many new congregations are finding deep community in smaller forms. As these churches are being planted, many appreciate the depth of their community and realize that they might lost something when they become larger.

I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that the future of the church may not come from the tall-steeple pastors’ imagination. I am thankful for their voices in the discussion. I acknowledge the vast sum of money that they spent to put on a conference. But, as we look toward the future, I hope that we can keep looking at the edges. I hope that we can keep listening to immigrant communities, women, people of color, younger people, and those who are engaging with technology. I have a deep longing that those who are engaging with technology will not turn into another boy’s club, commenting about how annoying the girls are for wanting to be a part.

There are people who have not been able to attain the large pulpit, who are doing something different, who may not have much weight to throw around, and yet, they need to be heard in these conversations.

(Oh… and to be clear… my post is a paltry, late rehashing of some really good work that’s out there: namely MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s post, Landon Whitsitt’s post, and John Vest’s post.)

Where Do You Find the Time?

There are two ways in which that question is asked. One is by the person who has been to our church, read my books, reads my blogs, listened to our podcast, heard me at an event, met my family, and they ask, “Where do you find the time?” They appreciate my work and I appreciate the question.

Usually I mutter something about how our house is a disaster, our laundry pile is the size of Mount Everest, I don’t match socks, I don’t watch television, I wake up at 4:30 every morning, and I’m blessed to live in an area with a decent variety of cheap, healthy, fast ethnic food.

But there is another way that “Where do you find the time?” is asked. The question usually has to do with social media, and it comes with a bit of eye-rolling and some underlying assumptions, mainly, “My time is much more important to spend it on blogging.” And it often comes with the requisite jab, “I don’t care what you had for breakfast.”

If you don’t think that blogging, Facebook and Twitter are a good way for you to spend your time, then that’s fine. It does take some significant amount of energy to keep up with things. But please don’t judge, and don’t assume that you’re doing things that are way more awesome than we are.

There are many, many things that people do with their time that I don’t find all that stimulating, but I don’t shake my head and ask “Where do you find the time?” when someone tells me about their various hobbies, sports passions, or TV viewing habits.

As Clay Shirky reminded me in his latest book, in a time when most Americans made watching television into a part-time job, it’s kind of ridiculous to look at people who are interested in the Internet as participating in a vast and meaningless time-suck. After all, TV is passive entertainment, and most people spend time on the Internet creating content and relaying relevant (although I know this term is relative…) information. Whether it’s status updates, blog posts, web sites, or conversations over our breakfast menus, we’re involved in creating things. We’re interacting with other people. You may not think that it’s worth our time. And that’s okay. But could you please keep that to yourself? Then I promise I won’t point out how ridiculous it is that you’re wearing matching socks.

Advent Whispers

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will reign over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

Luke 1:26-33 (CEB)

I can’t explain to you the overwhelming emotion that I had after peeing on that little stick and watching the plus sign appear. I had been married for seven years, and my gut longing for a baby was intense. When I was in Target and I heard an infant crying, I had an overwhelming urge to comfort the child. I mean, I had to stop myself from asking the mom if I could just hold her baby for a little bit. Every time an infant was carried into a room, my eyes would follow her beautiful face, and warmth would fill me as I saw her glowing expression. My biological clock felt like a time bomb ticking, because the urgency was so intense.

It’s not that way for every woman. I understand that. But it was for me. And after my experience, I know why women keep having babies, even with the advent of birth control. Even in the midst of war-torn countries. Even when we know about overpopulation. Even when we have incredible careers and no time for dirty diapers. Some of us just have that evolutionary drive within us to create.

I kept a box of those magic sticks in the bathroom and regularly tested to see if just the right mix of hormones would turn that negative into a positive.

Even with my massive baby-shaped vacuum sucking in my soul, we weren’t “trying” to have a child. I knew that would have been irresponsible. Our lives never seemed settled enough to bring someone else into our crazy world. My husband and I were both pastors in small rural congregations, so we never had enough money, and our jobs were never secure. We were always worried that we would have to move. Plus, I didn’t feel fit to be a mother. I mean, I had mountains of laundry that needed to be folded, I skipped breakfast on a regular basis, and sometimes the only nutrition I would partake in was a greasy pizza at 11:00 at night.

So when that second blue line appeared, crossing over the first line, making that negative sign into a positive, my world felt like it was overturning. Even with such longing, I panicked.

The elation, the fear, and the feelings of inadequacy were intense. When I told my husband, I wept. He comforted me, held me, and whispered, “Don’t worry. You’re going to be a great mom.” And he added with curiosity, “I thought you wanted this.”

I always think about that moment when I read this passage. Of course, Mary wasn’t holding a urine-soaked stick, bringing her the good news about the fruit of her womb. A messenger was there, telling her not to fear. But the words seem a lot the same. The angel was coaxing her, letting her know that she was adequate, and God was honoring her. In fact, she was going to great. And there would be incredible things in store for the child.

And yet, Mary’s feelings must have been intense. The world must have been overturning, as she dreaded facing her fiancé, who was not the father of the baby. Or as she thought about what happened to women in her position. She had to have imagined what would have happened if she were caught. An angry mob would surround her, hurling stones at her, until her brown skin turned black and blue, and she would die along with that great hope in her womb.

In this time of Advent, as we’re pregnant with expectation and all of these intense emotions swirl about us, as we long to see God’s reign, as we hope for a just and peaceful world, it seems that these messages are still important. In our elation, our fear, our inadequacy, and our confusion, we will need to keep holding one another, reminding one another, “Don’t be afraid. God is with you.”

[This post was written as a part of Common English Bible’s Advent Blog Tour. Be sure to check out the other postings. They have collected a wonderful group of writers.]

Keeping Awake After 2,000 Years

[this was originally written for The Beatitudes Society]

GOSPEL MATTHEW 24:36-44

36″But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

I had a seminary friend who wore a t-shirt that said, “Jesus is coming” on the front of it, and “Look busy!” on the back. I have to admit that too often sums up my feelings around this time of year.

Advent begins, and we open up our Scriptures to these ancient texts, telling us that no one knows the day or the hour, but we can’t sleep. We must stay awake! After all, there will be a time when the lion and the lamb lie down together, when we beat our swords into plowshares, and we will not learn war any more. But, I’ve been preaching these texts for a dozen years, and it’s been over two thousand years since these promises were made, and the violence continues. We have not made our swords into anything but more massive and fatal weapons. I’m not feeling so alert at this point.

Yet, God rarely comes in the way that we predict. Who anticipated that a teenaged single mom would bear God? Who expected that those kicks in her belly would incite her to dream of a day when the lowly would be lifted up and the hungry would be filled?

Perhaps, now, a couple thousand years later, we will never know the reign of God that is in and among us, until we wake up and become attune to those promises of peace and justice, until we can become alert to those things that are going on around us that remind us of God’s presence, until we walk away from the cynicism and despair that can sedate us and become busy, working for a world where the downtrodden will be buoyed and the ravaged will be made whole.

So, I ask you, where is God kicking about in and among you? Where have you seen these great promises taking place in your life and work?

Born Again

I was teenager, standing in front of the mirror, hating every bit of the reflection. I was born in the seventies and grew up along a beach town in Florida. It’s a place where–sometimes by necessity–people don’t wear many clothes. The beach dominated our recreation and businesses, and it was so hot that a lot of clothing didn’t make sense. Many restaurants had to instruct their customers to wear shoes and shirts in order to receive service. I never wanted to wear a bathing suit in public. I had a less than perfect body, and never got over my self-consciousness enough to venture out without full covering. And as I stared into that mirror, my body consciousness turned into shame, and then hatred began to take root, until I loathed what I saw. Every imperfection, every curve, I treated with a disgust that haunted me throughout the day. It came out in subtle ways, mostly with an eating disorder that never allowed me to consume food without guilt.

Sadly, my Christian faith didn’t help matters much. As a teen, we attended a conservative mega-church. I was a “born-again Christian,” fashioned in a tradition where I was always taught to “take up my cross” and to “die to self.” There was a dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, they told me. As a Christian, I was caught in an internal warfare, where I was trying to contain the flesh and discipline it. This hatred of the body fit in well with the emotional and hormonal turmoil I went going through as a teenager, as I began to develop in strange and unusual ways, and I could no longer quite squeeze myself into a bathing suit. Our church constantly encouraged us to fast as a spiritual discipline. Our pastor went thirty days without food, and preached about the experience constantly. So I fasted. I learned to ignore the cravings for which my body yearned. I turned away from the hunger, pain, and stress, all in the belief that I, as a good Christian, ought to keep any cravings of my body under spiritual control.

I didn’t come into a full understanding of my folly until fifteen years later, when my body began quickly and drastically changing again. I was pregnant, and each day I would stand in front the mirror, just like before. Yet, the experience was completely different. This time, it was with pure wonder at what was happening, as each part of my body swelled. I could no longer ignore my cravings. I had to listen closely to them, because they told me exactly what my body needed—leafy greens on one day and dairy products on the next. If I shunned my hunger and skipped a meal, I would vomit. My body let me know when the stress of my job was becoming too much and I needed to slow down, or when I needed to sleep more.

During this second time of profound physical change, I no longer had the same spiritual teachers. My theology had also evolved radically, as I read more feminists in my tradition, and the voices of those women reminded me that I needed to love my neighbor and I needed to love myself. They lifted up the fact that God said creation is good, and we need to take care of it. As I looked down at my enlarged flesh, I realized that I was not only a part of creation, but I was a partner in creation. As my body morphed into new shapes, my faith took on a new form as well, as I read theologians who shunned the idea that every sin begins with pride, while lifting up the fact that often people live with the violation of self-hatred. When I looked into the mirror, my new teachers whispered to me that I must great respect for that reflection. Because what I was looking at was imago dei–I was made in the image of God.

Feeling those first kicks made me experience my spirituality much differently. So much of what I had been taught had been focused on death, especially Jesus’ death on the cross, and that act of human cruelty had become central to my faith in unhealthy ways.  And yet, through those nine months, and the years that followed, I began to see my spirituality through the lens of birth and life. I became “born again,” as I understood that the Spirit was giving birth to me anew. God was using me in the act of creation, and I learned the importance of deeply-loved flesh.

What is your legacy?

When I was in Cajun Louisiana, serving as a pastor, I learned about traiteurs. When people would get sick, they would go to the doctor and to the traiteur, just to make sure all of their bases were covered. Many of my neighbors, friends, and members of my congregation would say, “I was suffering from arthritis. I went to the doctor and I went to the traiteur, and now I’m healed. You can decide which one made me better.” And as they said it, I always got the feeling that I was voting for the doctor, and they were voting for the traiteur. The traiteurs were healers who lived in the swamps. I tried to research them, but there was very little written on them. They have a few pages in Cajun history books, and now there’s a wikipedia article on them. I never went to one, but I was pretty fascinated by them, so I was always asking people for stories.

They seemed to have combined some of the religious voodoo practices that are common in New Orleans with the liturgies of the Catholic Church. Some of the herbal treatments reminded me of the medicine men in Uganda. And then there were some interesting practices that seemed more magical. Like if you came to be healed from a wart, they would rub a dime over the wart, then they would tell you that when you spent the dime, then the wart would be transferred from your hand to the person you gave the dime to.

Their hands often radiated heat. When they were healing a dislocated shoulder, the patient could feel the burning coming from the palms of the traiteur’s hand. For the most part, traiteurs were men and women of prayer. They had a book of prayers that they would whisper, hardly audible for the person who came for healing. People didn’t pay them with money very often. They paid with food–chicken, shrimp, fish, or vegetables from the their gardens.

And one of the most interesting things that I learned about the traiteurs is they had an intricate system of passing down their miraculous knowledge. According to wikipedia, if the traiteur was a man, he would teach a woman. If the healer was a woman, she would pass down her knowledge to a man. One by one, the healer would teach the prayers to the apprentice, and when the apprentice would learn the prayer completely, then the teacher would lose power over that particular prayer. The prayer became the student’s, and no longer the teacher’s. Through many years, they would go through this ritual, until all of the prayers belonged to the apprentice. For almost 250 years, since the Acadians settled Louisiana, this ancient tradition has been kept alive through this process.

The magic tied to this process reminds me of the idea of legacies and inheritance in our Scriptures. There were two offices in the Old Testament, two kinds of religious jobs. One was that of a priest—and the priest would maintain the temple or the synagogue. He would keep the offerings burning on time and made sure that the rituals were followed correctly.

Then there was a prophet, a person who often caused chaos. When everyone was fat and happy, the prophets were there, reminding them that God’s punishment was just around the corner. When people were lamenting and in anguish, prophets were there, tearing their clothes, sitting in ashes, telling people about the mercy, grace and love of God.

In the Old Testament, there was a system of identifying and training prophets, usually within a family. They would look for the next generation of leadership, and they would anoint their predecessor. When a prophet found another prophet, he or she (there were women prophets. We know about Deborah, the judge and prophet, so there were probably more) would take a horn of oil, and pour it over the head of the predecessor to mark them. Often when a holy person died, he or she handed down their “mantle.” Or there was a blessing that was passed on. There was a sense that something miraculous was exchanged between the two people. This is what happened with the exchange of power between Elijah and Elisha. Elijah and Elisha are incredibly fascinating characters. Elijah was a prophet, and Elisha was his apprentice. They’re kind of funny, kind of magical, and kind of scary.

In many ways I was lucky to start my ministry in South Louisiana, because this idea of apprenticeship was not only alive in the Cajun culture, but also in the African American culture. And so as I began my first years as a minister, several Methodist pastors took me under their wing. I was a 26-year-old feisty feminist, and these men who had been pastors for fifty years. And yet they took time with me, once a week, for an entire afternoon, to study Scriptures and give me advice. I was, at first, infuriated by what was happening. I thought it was pure patriarchy! I was always respectful to the men, but every week after we met, I told my husband that I wasn’t going back. I felt like just because I was a young woman, they were going to sit around and tell me what to do all day long. As if I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. But I kept going back.

Then I really started needing their help, and they were there, teaching me how to navigate the difficult terrain of a small church. Telling me when to take sides in a congregational conflict, and when to act as the mediator. Pretty soon, I became less angry about the injustices that I had to endure as a woman, and I began to empathize with my colleagues who served faithfully in communities where segregation and abuse was still very much alive. And, I’m not sure how to explain it, but they put recordings in my head that I’ve played back for a dozen years as I’ve served as a pastor. They established a foundation for me that I walk on every day. And I’m incredibly thankful that they took the time to drink thick black coffee, and teach me how to be a pastor.

I don’t know what I would have done if I started out here, in D.C. It is a sink or swim place, in our profession. There is rarely the expectation or vision among colleagues that we mentor each other. And, our schedules are so packed that it takes weeks to get a lunch appointment. It seems that it is not just in this particular religious community, but it can be all over.

We have lost the sense that something magical happens when we share our knowledge with someone who is starting out. We have lost this sense that we have a mantle, a legacy that we can pass on. Sometimes we do not know how to look at the next generation, not as a threat or competition, but as a hope that they will achieve greater things than we will. That they will make the world a better place.

Sometimes I worry that we have lost the art of teaching the next generation in our country.

I am not sure why, but maybe it’s because we used to be an agrarian based culture, where the hard labor had to be shared—especially with those who were younger and stronger. Therefore, knowledge needed to be passed down as well, or we could not eat. There were family farms and family businesses, and so it was important for each generation to entrust their knowledge to their sons. Then, as the industrial revolution replaced the agrarian culture, and the tech and service industry replaced that, we entered into a time of competition. Instead of sharing the work so that all might be fed, we entered an economy that realized that keeping secrets was much more important than sharing them. Professions were not passed down from one generation to the next in the same way. People began to go to college to become trained. And sometimes, the academic pursuit of a profession was removed from the practical implementation. It seems that apprenticeships were replaced by internships.

D.C. is run with interns. We’ve had interns at our church. It seems that internship are highly competitive to get into. But they are too often about young, college graduates who have way too much student loan debt, are yet they expected to work for free without health insurance, paying rent in expensive cities, and going into more debt. Often it sets up a system of privilege so that people who have parents who can afford the internships, can do them. Many times internships are about doing the grunt work, and not learning the important skills and knowledge that the organization has to offer.

Don’t get me wrong. A good internship is a wonderful thing. Yet, for many college students in our country, they are expected to work for free for at least one year in order to get a decent job. Imagine if you had to live in DC, when you’re just starting out, without any income, for at least one year. (I’m sure many of you don’t have to tax your imagination too much, because you’ve already been through an internship, or you’re in one now.) This system is putting students into debt, and it’s eating away their parent’s retirement savings.

Now, I know that our city would probably shut down if there were no interns, but in this difficult economy, could it be time to start thinking about what we are doing to people in these situations? They’re in no place to complain, because they typically need to get a job out of it. But in this time when recent graduates face rising school debt, stagnant salaries, high rents, and lack of jobs, should we be expecting that they work without pay for so long? Often, it seems like an undue burden for those who desperately need a lighter load. We may need to ask some questions. If an intern is, in essence, contributing to the politician, office, church, or NGO a year’s salary, are we giving them more than just a foot in the door? Are we training them, mentoring them, and spending time with them? Are we setting up a system where people who do not have families with means are getting that much farther behind than those with means?

It’s not just in D.C. When I was teaching at a conference for campus ministers this week, we started talking about internships, many of the pastors agreed that this has become very damaging to young adults in our country. One campus minister even compared it to slavery.

Too often, we have lost the sense of building up new leaders, of leaving a legacy to the next generation. And I don’t just mean money, but I mean investing the time, the wisdom, and the secrets. I mean taking that metaphorical bull’s horn of oil, and seeking out that particular person. The one who will become greater than you are. And when you look back at your career, you can point to that person and know that a double portion of your blessing is still living in them.